Monday, October 17, 2016

"Conflicts of Interest and the Medical Value of Tree Frog Raise New Questions About Newstown Marshes"

That was the headline on the news article I submitted last night for my online class on Journalism Skills for Engaged Citizens from the University of Melbourne through Coursera. The lead paragraph went on:
"New revelations arose this week about the mayor’s personal financial interests in Futopia’s Newstown Marshes project and about the potential medical value of the endangered auburn tree frog.  More questions linger about the effectiveness of the flood control projects given the impacts of climate change on future flooding."
Over the several weeks of the course, new information emerges on the "Newstown" website which includes background on key players, press releases, interviews, and other bits of information on the events of the fictional community of Newstown, somewhere northwest of Melbourne, Australia.  Each week a little more is revealed.

Last week our assignment was to write a lead sentence for the story of the Newstown Marshes development.

This week we had to do a whole story.  I submitted mine just before the deadline - which is somewhat confusing for a class with people in Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

The key story revolves around a land development deal in environmentally delicate marshlands.

This week the instructors conducted video interviews;  one example of a poor interview and one of a good interview with each of the key players.  I do interviews now and then for the blog, and I know about preparing for them as an academic, but I haven't previously read stuff about how journalists do it.  One issue that resonated with me is that most journalists don't like confronting people about things they don't want to talk about.  That made it feel a little less daunting.   There was also an interesting lecture on interviewing people undergoing trauma - something that some journalists routinely, but isn't normally part of my blogger beat.

My blogging experience has helped me to review information quickly and see the whole story and then fill it in with facts and quotes.

After submitting our stories, we then have to grade four of our classmates' papers as well.  There's a template for grading that makes it fairly easy to mark levels on different aspects - like covering all the key facts in the story.

When I taught, I had  developed my own template for grading my students' papers which helped considerably to articulate to students what I was actually looking for and what I thought they did well or poorly.  It also forced me to give examples of why I gave a lower or higher grade.  Sometimes, in looking for those examples, I found my score on that factor was wrong, and I'd change it.

The templates for the course are similarly useful, but we're also limited in comments to:

The aspect of this article I most enjoyed was…
The most useful suggestion for improvement to this article I can make is…
The spelling and grammar errors I identified (if any) in this submission were…

I think limiting the areas for improvement is a good idea because taking criticism is difficult.
People can deal with one point, but lots might be overwhelming. And since everyone in this class is getting feedback from at least four classmates, that should suffice.  It also helps to make one's  point by identifying specific concrete examples and how to improve them.  This allows you to get straight to the issue without having to use judgmental terms.  

I've found that the papers I've had to grade were really quite good.  Generally they got the key ideas and were written in clear English.  Better than some graduate papers I've read here at UAA.  But I also suspect that a lot of people aren't actually turning in assignments because the number of  assignments listed is far short of the number of students who were originally signed up for the class.

A couple more things of interest in this assignment for me included the inverted pyramid idea and the Hemingway editor.

The inverted pyramid was offered as a template for writing news stories - with the most important
Image from Cyber College
points at the top, and then filling in the less important ones further down.  While that's generally a good way to write, specifically identifying it as an inverted pyramid was helpful.  And I think I've heard that before, but I haven't thought about it that way when I've been blogging stories.  And while I'll think about it now, I'm not sure that's the format I want to always use.  I like to give a lot more context and to speak directly from me to the reader about what I'm doing and why.  (Which is what the ethical principles I wrote about recently say to do.)

The Hemingway Editor is a tool to check the readability of your article.  You just paste it in and it gives you a score and marks your article up in different colors.

0 of 9 sentences are hard to read.
9 of 9 sentences are very hard to read.
2 phrases have simpler alternatives.
3 adverbs. Aim for 2 or fewer.
1 use of passive voice.Aim for 2 or fewer.

My sense is that this is a simple formula related to things like  number of words in a sentence and doesn't assess how well the words were put together.  One paper I had to grade got a horrendous Hemingway score, but was really quite readable.  With all the attribution we had to use in our stories, the sentences got a little longer and more comma'd up than the Hemingway editor likes.  But if it's done well it's fine.

But I think dropping work into the Hemingway editor is not a bad idea to remind me to look for easier ways to say something.  

I think there are a couple more weeks left of the class.  Overall, it's not too taxing.  The online interface is good.  We see the instructors in video, but we have no interaction with them at all.  We do have discussion boards, but there's relatively little extended discussion.  Teaching assistants monitor the discussions.  It's an alternative to getting information from a book, or maybe it's using the internet to augment what you can do with just print and it's not as linear as a book.  And I am able to take this class for free.  Maybe the paying students get more attention, but it doesn't appear so.  What they get is a certificate at the end.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.